Wednesday, 19 August 2015

science, learning, and environments that produce eureka moments

Is there a similarity between how science operates and how we try to construct the learning environments of our classrooms?

I was speaking about this with Duston Moore, one of our educational developers in the UofA's CTL. It goes back to my attempts at using active learning strategies in the classroom with the goal of producing deeper learning by engaging students. What we discussed is how giving students the answer short circuits deep learning because knowledge sticks when we discover it for ourselves: when the light goes on in our head as understanding dawns and we experience our own personal eureka moment.

Science, in some sense is always searching for those eureka moments - those flashes of insight where, moments before, seemingly disparate pieces of information suddenly come together and we understand the world in a new way. Sometimes the eureka moment builds over time with repeated attempts at showing something is true only to have the experiment appear to fail - or at least fail to give the expected results. But by attacking the problem from different vantage points, using different techniques or conditions, eventually we see what was an anomaly actually makes sense when viewed in a different way.

Perhaps teaching and learning are similar. As instructors we need to produce a learning environment for our students whereby they are able to put the pieces together themselves constructing their own internal knowledge structure made robust by its integration with their personal experience. And when our students are unable to put the pieces together we need to think of other ways to present the material or concept fresh that sheds light on what students cannot yet see and understand.

How do we learn? How do we know? I wonder if there are some similarities between learning and how science is done? I wonder if making students aware of how we ourselves learn, will strengthen their ability to learn? The literature on metacognition of learning certainly suggests this to be the case.


Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010). How do students become self-directed learners? In How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (pp. 188–216). San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Brown, P. C., Roediger III, H. L., & McDaniel, M. A. (2014). Increase your abilities. In Make it stick: The science of successful learning (pp. 162–200). Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Coutinho, S. A. (2007). The relationship between goals, metacognition, and academic success. Educate~, 7(1), 39 – 47.

Girash, J. (2014). Metacognition and instruction. In V. A. Benassi, C. E. Overson, & C. M. Hakala (Eds.), Applying Science of Learning in Education: Infusing Psychological Science into the Curriculum (pp. 152–168). Society for the Teaching of Psychology.

Tanner, K. D. (2012). Promoting student metacognition. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11(2), 113–120.